In our fast-paced, disposable world, the attitude that employees are throwaway commodities has unfortunately taken over the workplace. What would you say about an industry that makes money by creating an underclass of employees who receive less pay than their colleagues, no benefits and have zero job security? Some people call them temporary agencies, but I think of them as pimps. They are the 21st century’s equivalent of sweatshops.
In this fragile and slow economic recovery, the few companies that are hiring are often hiring strictly temporary employees, whose temporary agencies charge a premium of approximately a 40% markup on their pay for no more than processing their paychecks. These employees often have the same responsibilities and working conditions as “regular” employees, but are paid less to make up for the temp agency’s markup and increase its profit margin, receive zero benefits and are considered “disposable” by the employer. In addition, they are often treated with little respect. Frequently, they don’t even work long enough to establish an unemployment claim. What do I mean? Here’s a true life example.
I took a temporary assignment with a consumer goods manufacturer. It wasn’t well paid and had no benefits, but it was at least better than unemployment, even though it was an extremely long (hour plus) drive. I was encouraged because I was told it would be an assignment of at least 6 months and possibly temp to “permanent.” I had worked there about 4 months when I asked my supervisor about my future with the company. She was very complimentary about my work and said I would be there “at least six months, if not longer.” About a week later, I developed a medical problem that would require minor outpatient surgery (the doctor said it would take 15 minutes in the Operating Room). One day I was a little teary eyed at work and had to tell my boss I needed to take a few hours off from work to see a doctor about a consultation for minor outpatient surgery, although I didn’t tell her the specifics. I decided to be truthful rather than lie; this turned out to be a grave mistake. One week later, I returned home and received a call from the temp agency after work indicating that the company had decided to end my temporary assignment. I asked the agency for a reason and they said they were very surprised since the company’s feedback about me had been “glowing” up until then. The company didn’t provide a reason for the abrupt end of my assignment. When I asked the agency to inquire about a reason, they said a company representative commented, “we aren’t’ required to provide a reason.” Due to my previous excellent feedback from my boss and the timing of events, I surmised that the company thought that I’d a) require too much time off from work or b) drive up their medical costs if they hired me as a “permanent” employee. The following day, I received a call asking me to return my desk key to the company. I said that since it was a one hour drive both ways, I couldn’t drive there but would return the key through the mail. If they’d had the simple courtesy to inform me at the my assignment was ending at the end of my last day, rather than letting the temp agency call me at home, they could have had their desk key the same day and I could have taken my few personal items home with me. As it was, most of my personal items remained there.
I was well qualified for the job I was performing. I had more advanced degrees and more job-related experience than my supervisor, but that didn’t help me since there are few jobs in my field and my state’s unemployment rate is much higher than the national rate. In fact, in this economy temp agencies are taking shameless advantage of the high unemployment rate to exploit workers. A friend of mine who has a bachelor’s degree, 20 years of experience, and has nearly completed Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification was recently offered $9.00/hr for a computer help desk technician job that I know should pay about $25.00/hr, even with only about a year of experience. While he didn’t get the job, you may be certain that the temp agency charged about $35.00/hr to their client for whomever they placed in the job at $9.00 an hour, making their profits about 250% what they would have been if they’d paid a fair wage. This is brazen exploitation of the unemployed, but they get away with it because people are desperate.
In comparison with “regular” employees, temporary agency employees receive less training, less pay and benefits, have zero job security, have less control over how the work is done, are often exposed to more hazardous working conditions, and have more workplace accidents. Only when temporary agency employees receive the same pay, benefits and working conditions as their “regular” employee counterparts, will it become more cost effective for most employers to hire “regular” employees rather than resort to the quick fix of temporary staffing. The only way I can see this happening is through the unionization of temporary agency employees. According to the European Trade Union Confederation, In the European Union, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, France and Spain, temporary agency employees are increasingly being unionized. The EU has even proposed a set of non-discrimination regulations for temporary agency employees in order to create a level playing field. It’s time for American unions to take note of this trend and unionize temporary agency employees in the United States. They could seriously increase their flagging union membership.